City of Bits Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn, William Mitchell, a professor of architecture and media arts and sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posits some of the social, legal, and philosophical consequences of revolutionary advances in electronic communication and computer technology. Using the specialized vocabulary of telecommunication and computers, Mitchell addresses the impact that the electronic information highway is making on traditional definitions of space, time, and human interaction. The Internet challenges old ways of viewing “workspace,” “homespace,” and “cityspace” and demands a redefinition of architecture and urbanism for the twenty-first century.

Mitchell illustrates the tension between traditional and electronic forms of human relationships and civic structure through a dizzying series of wired urban metaphors. The computer keyboard is seen as an electronic café, a place to chat with others around the world. The Internet itself is an electronic agora, the modern equivalent of the ancient Greek city center. Despite the real distinctions between keyboard and café, city center and Internet, these metaphors lead Mitchell to observe several basic cognitive transformations resulting from electronic communication.

One such transformation concerns human perception of space. On the Internet, spatial becomes antispatial. Face-to-face contact yields to forms of communication in which location does not matter. Unlike a postal address, an e-mail address is an access code usable from any physical link into the electronic world. In such an environment, geographic and social distinctions between palace and ghetto, between Beverly Hills and Watts, are, to a certain extent, blurred. Where a person lives and works no longer determines who the person is.

Communication via the Internet is also incorporeal rather than corporeal and encourages disengagement of physical individuals from their electronic identities. No longer is acquaintance defined by looking people in their eyes, shaking their hands, and hearing their voices. The eyes, hands, and voices of people communicating on the Internet are distant and not part of their bodiless Internet identity. Furthermore, this identity is sometimes disguised and distorted via easily assumed electronic aliases, the use of someone else’s identity, or the creation of programmed agents. The result is a persona that is no longer unified or focused but fragmented.

Such antispatial, incorporeal, and fragmented modes of communication make physical proximity less important. Communities of bankers, lawyers, or teachers no longer have to live or work in close quarters. As Mitchell observes, geographic contiguity becomes irrelevant in an electronic world where information travels by logical electronic links rather than via physical paths.

Another area of transformation is temporal. Mitchell suggests that communication becomes less synchronous in an electronic context, where time of day no longer matters and both sender and recipient can manipulate the timing of the message. Such changes in communicative techniques break down the rhythms of the natural world and social convention.

The computer network creates new human cyborgs, physically wired to their surroundings via a network in which electronic agents perform some body functions. Electronic actuators can serve as mechanical muscles. The video screen is an extension of the human eye, an electronic eyeball connected to a worldwide optic nerve called the Internet. Human ears hear sounds via telephony, as Mitchell contrasts a traditional live musical performance with electronic performances in which vocal partners in different cities perform together. Telemanipulators replace or extend the hands of distant surgeons. The human brain is assisted by artificial intelligence which chooses traveling routes and speed control for human drivers. Joggers run with electronic compasses and tachometers. Human organs can be replaced by electronic ones, both internally and externally. The result is a human body surrounded by a wired network in which interior and exterior, self and the external world, become blurred.

From body spaces Mitchell moves to building spaces. Architectural designs serve various social and institutional purposes, based upon the Vitruvian principle of decorum, form adapted to function. In the world of telecommunication...

(The entire section is 1796 words.)